Amongst the thousands of objects unearthed by the archaeological team were potshards – pieces of terracotta – several of which were discarded by the excavating agency. Vivan Sundaram collected these fragments and brought them to his studio in Delhi. The body of work that forms Install: black gold, terraoptics and the work of termites at PHOTOINK, New Delhi, from the 13th of April to the 29th of June, grows from this excavated, rejected and salvaged material. The show employs acts of archiving and assimilation to generate various modes of viewing.
Sundaram shows the past through competing perspectives. In 2012, he created a large site-specific installation with these discarded potshards for the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale. In briefly returning the objects to Kochi, he staged a faux archaeological site, using debris as form and material to create a speculative past. In 2014, Sundaram revisited the material to create Black Gold, a three-channel floor projection that recounted the flooding and destruction of Muziris, using peppercorns. In 2016, the potshards were reconstituted into miniature sets. Each set was then photographed from a bird’s eye perspective, surveilling the composition. These terracotta assemblages titled Terraoptics recreated a riparian landscape, its surface glowing with the orange of heating coil and engine oil and the edges lit by fibre-optics.
Vivan Sundaram. Unearthed: day from the series Unearthed. Pigment print. 72” x 48”. 2019.
Sundaram collapses readings of his material by disrupting a conventional understanding of history. He is interested in the possibilities of archaeology, in how clues emerge in parts and pits, and how this makes speculative history possible. He instils his exhibition design with this understanding. The archival in Sundaram’s practice is also an act of the imagination. The artist’s laboriously created installations offer the determination of both sensory and physical veracity. This leads the viewer into multiple pasts. Instead of presenting a definitive reading, he chooses archival and/or fictional fragments that eventually converge to form a seemingly objective record of events.
In the show, Sundaram re-assembles and evolves this material spread over seven years in a cross-pollinatory sprawl, made possible through its setting. We begin by walking over a slab of glass, beneath which Burnt Mound is placed. This hollow is at once an excavation pit as well as a vitrine. Instigating the act of looking down or walking over that which is buried, the sculpture resembles a primitive formation, sedimented over time. The looking down and walking must continue as we tread over an aerial view of the potshard landscape before entering the interior exhibition space. Sundaram, very early on in the show, breaks comfortable, eye-level viewing. He draws our attention to things that we may miss in our navigation of public and private spaces.
Once inside, we are confronted by Unearthed. The set of light boxes brings together compositions of terracotta shards, small-scale sculptures and miscellaneous objects. Sundaram continues to test the potential of spatial complexity and urban fantasy with the addition of fibre-optic luminosity to the debris. He presents digitally intervened, back-lit images of our catastrophic times – congested urban settlements, the political acts of demolition and nature claiming land with calamities. Sundaram’s most recent series titled Work of Termites is an elegy to death, decay and the passage of time. In the fluid patterns of termite-eaten hollows, the artist finds a site for images. With these eroding forms, depicting slow violence, eventual death and erasure, the artist imbues the work with temporariness, abstraction and decomposition.
To reference Ruth Rosengarten on Sundaram’s practice, the terms ‘assemblage’ and ‘bricolage’ may be employed to understand the collaging of diverse familiar and strange objects that are foraged, found and collected. His photographs are no different. The images are sculptural as much as they are painterly. Throughout the show, Sundaram continues to make incisions into the historical plane, opening up probabilities of multiple pasts and possible futures, simultaneously. In breaking the indexical, linear and the chronological, he is able to inflect history with the ductility of speculation. In this passion for ruins lies both nostalgia and morbidity, a fascination for that which was and why it isn’t anymore. His fictions do not focus merely on fact but also on the fact’s record. Here is where Install: black gold, terraoptics and the work of termites finds its rare vulnerability. “Death comes in slow and subtle forms, revealing itself in a beauty unreal…,” reads a line from the Work of Termites. This perhaps sums the many parallel conversations that Sundaram’s show deploys, and then again those that can only be experienced in the absence of words, in recollection, silence and in mourning.